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"Carmen" Considered: Reflections on Lyric Stage’s Most Ambitious Opera Yet
Lyric Stage closes the chapter on the fall opera, moving towards big projects ahead.
Mississippi College’s Lyric Stage brought one of operatic canon’s most famous – and challenging – works to the stage of Jean Pittman Williams Auditorium on Friday, October 13 and Saturday, October 14. In the wake of "Carmen," the program’s most ambitious opera yet, Lyric Stage looks back on the performance and towards a bright and busy future ahead.
Written in the 1870s by French composer Georges Bizet, "Carmen" tells the tragic story of Don José, a Spanish soldier who becomes enamored with the titular gypsy and, consumed by his obsession, loses all he holds dear. Lyric Stage adorned their 2-hour rendition with the trappings of a film noir: the actors wore 1940s costumes, and a screen with a projection of the live performance, cast in black-and-white with English captions to the French lyrics, accompanied the show.
The opera is universally recognizable. It features some of the most popular arias of all time, including “Habanera” and “Toreador Song.” It is also universally recognized as one of the most difficult operas to perform, particularly for those in the roles of Don José and Carmen.
That, however, did not deter Nicholas Perna.
Perna, professor of music at MC and producer for Lyric Stage, pitched his ambitious vision for a production of "Carmen" at MC to his fellow music faculty in the fall of 2022. In the months following, Perna and Lyric Stage’s cast of faculty and performers tackled "Carmen"’s many technical challenges, starting with casting.
“The first difficulty if you’re considering mounting "Carmen" is having a Carmen,” Perna said.
That’s where Annalee Crawford came in. Crawford, a graduate student in vocal performance and pedagogy, starred in last fall’s opera, Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Old Maid and the Thief. The mezzo-soprano played the titular role of Carmen. Crawford spent much of the Spring 2023 semester and all of the summer preparing for the role.
“I started learning some of Carmen’s arias [last spring], because they’re part of the big repertoire that a mezzo would sing,” Crawford said. “I was like, well, I have to learn ‘Habanera,’ and I should learn ‘Seguidilla.’ They’re the big things that everyone sings. I'd been learning parts of it since January.”
In fact, the whole cast, composed mostly of current MC students and partly of faculty and guest performers, prepared for months before the 8-week rehearsal period, which began in August. Among the performers was Perna himself, filling both the roles of producer and Don José.
“It was a lot of learning,” Perna said. “I spent no fewer than 200 hours over the summer singing for the role and working on the role – working on the diction, working on making sure that I had French inflection, working on the stamina I had to develop to sing the part.”
Performers practiced rigorously to be able to sing their roles onstage, both vocal technique and French pronunciation. Their preparations also involved developing and embodying their characters, which proved to be a special challenge for Crawford.
“I’m so opposite from Carmen,” Crawford said. “I love playing the goofy characters, and I can play an evil character really well, too. But she’s so seductive and flirtatious and alluring.”
“I’m honestly very proud of myself for how I built my confidence to that level,” Crawford said. “There was a period of time where I was like, ‘I can’t do it. There’s no way.’ When they told me that I would be playing Carmen, I was like, ‘I don’t feel like I’m beautiful enough to be playing this role… I don’t even look like Carmen.’ But I feel like by the end of it, I felt like I was Carmen.”
The preparations of the small but mighty crew paved the way for a successful show, perhaps against all odds.
“It’s very unusual for a university our size to do something like "Carmen", especially with such a small cast,” Crawford said.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been so proud of a student cast in terms of what they actually accomplished,” Perna stated. “I think, for them, it’s going to take several years for most of them to really look back and say, ‘Oh, my goodness. We sang "Carmen". In French. And did it in 8 weeks. And did it well!’”
Lyric Stage has announced its plans for the upcoming year. The program’s mainstage performance for Spring 2024 will be a revue of the early works of Sondheim, “Side by Side by Sondheim”, set for performances April 11-14. Lyric Stage vocalists will also be the featured artists of Opera Mississippi’s “Wizards of Broadway,” a concert of songs by Sondheim and Schwartz, at Duling Hall on March 4.
“[Lyric theater] is really one of the most difficult undertakings for any arts organization,” Perna said. “It really truly takes a village to make it happen.”
"Carmen" proves that the arts are alive and well at Mississippi College, and the village behind Lyric Stage plans to keep them that way for a long time to come.
“Lyric Stage has incredible things ahead for it,” said Perna. “We are very excited to continue to be really one of the Jackson Metro’s finest performing arts organizations.”
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